For those who watch from the sidelines at sporting events, it can be hard to relate to the pressures and anxieties of an athlete. And for individuals who are hearing, it’s near impossible to understand the complexities and challenges of being deaf or hard-of-hearing. Imagining what it’s like to be a deaf athlete, whether you’re hearing or deaf, athletically inclined or hopelessly clumsy, is not a task many are equipped for.
Sports history tells of only a handful of deaf athletes, and even in recent years there have been few big names to admire. William “Dummy” Hoy is perhaps one of the best-known deaf athletes, playing major league baseball from 1886 — 1903, where he regularly led the league in stolen bases. Hoy also held an outstanding fielding record, leading many to campaign year after year for his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Some prominent modern deaf athletes include retired professional baseball player and coach Curtis Pride; Denver Broncos’ defensive lineman Kenny Walker, now retired and coaching at the Iowa School for the Deaf; and still-active Olympic swimmer Terence Parkin.
These historic names show up again and again in the context of deaf athletes, which may lead one to believe that the world of deaf sports has been idle for many years. But with both a summer and winter Deaflympics boasting participation from 77 nations and organizations such as the USA Deaf Sports Federation and the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing competitors are finding more and more opportunities to show off their athleticism and strive for excellence and recognition in the world of sports.
Of course, if you were to look anywhere for strong deaf and hard of hearing competitors, it would be right here at RIT. With over 1,200 students identifying as either deaf or hard of hearing, RIT athletics greatly benefits from the presence and participation of deaf student-athletes. NTID just recently celebrated its rivalry with the deaf and hard of hearing Gallaudet University from April 15 — 17 with its RIT/Gallaudet Sports Weekend. Athletes from both schools competed in friendly matches in everything from basketball to “Mario Kart.”
This year, Chris Jappah, a fourth year Business Technology major, was one of two deaf athletes that participated on the RIT Men’s Soccer team. Born in Liberia, West Africa, Jappah grew up in mainstreamed schools without the use of an interpreter or any real knowledge of sign language. Growing up around a father and older relatives who played soccer regularly, Jappah learned from watching them. He began playing for school teams when he was old enough, and never found anyone who had a problem with his deafness. “I grew up reading lips, so I was able to understand my teammates just fine. I didn’t use an interpreter in middle school or high school; my teammates just had to come up with special ways to talk to me, making sure to speak slow and make their lip movements readable.”
Jappah came to the U.S. in 2004 with plans of going to college and continuing to play soccer. He chose RIT because of its strong on-campus Deaf community and his desire to know more about Deaf culture. Although soccer had to take a backseat to schoolwork for a few years, Jappah has since found a balance that allows him to keep playing the sport he loves.
Jappah’s playing experience differs from his hearing teammates’ — not being able to hear a ref’s whistle or the coach’s shouted instructions creates a need for a different approach to game play. “For me, I’ll sometimes have to watch the ref or ask a teammate about a call. I’m always watching though — I play with my eyes.” Signals from the referee, as well as from flag holders on the edge of the field, help keep Jappah aware of what’s happening throughout the game.
During practice, communication between teammates is especially important, allowing players to analyze and perfect their moves before facing game situations. Initially, Jappah sensed some hesitation from some of the players when he first joined the team, but any unease was quickly put to rest. “I feel like some people think that deaf people can’t play sports. But my teammates behave like brothers, they look out for me,” said Jappah. His teammates have taken the time to learn some key signs to help better communicate with him, and are sure to speak slowly and clearly whenever they talk to him. Showing, instead of telling, is also key. Jappah says, “In practice, I’m never the first [player] to go — I see what they are drilling first. An interpreter usually comes to the practices, but when there’s no interpreter, I feel fine using voice and reading lips.” Jappah’s love of the game has impressed his teammates, making any differences in hearing ability seem trivial.
While Jappah has another year left at RIT, he isn’t eligible to play another season due to NCAA rules. Still, he plans to continue playing soccer, even beyond RIT. Once he obtains U.S. citizenship, Jappah will be accepting an invitation to join the USA Deaf National Soccer Team, a contender in the 2013 Deaflympics held in Greece. Says Jappa, “To me, soccer is like my breath, so I will never quit playing.”